Most political pundits live in London – while most voters do not.
The Government has made a point of remembering the distinction. For example when asked about the way house prices are booming out of control Ministers gently rebuke their metropolitan elite interviewers.They note that the phenomenon is rather less pronounced beyond the capital.
The proposal from George Osborne being announced today – for a High Speed 3 railway connection – has great political as well as economic significance.
Mr Osborne says a “northern powerhouse” is needed as London’s dominance is “not healthy” for the economy. Instead the north of England – with better transport links will be enabled to “take on the world”.
He will add:
“We need to think big. We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west – to create the equivalent of travelling around a single global city. As well as fixing the roads, that means considering a new high-speed rail link. Today I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high-speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure. A third high speed railway for Britain.”
The economics are questionable. If such schemes are such good value for money why can’t they be funded with private capital rather than billions (or tens of billions) of taxpayer subsidy? Partly this is due to the cost of the planning system. The challenge to justify rail investment is not merely that it would provide economic advantages but that those benefits are greater than the disadvantages caused by the higher tax needed to pay for them.
Might not rebalancing of the economy be achieved faster and more effectively by boosting the programme of enterprise zones?
The politics of HS3 look much more convincing. There is, to put in positive terms, plenty of scope for the Conservatives to be doing better in the North.
As David Skelton put it, writing on this site last year:
“The scale of the problem is illustrated by the fact that the Tories hold less than a third of the seats in the North of England and only a single seat in Scotland. They hold only 20 of the 124 urban seats in the North and Midlands (that’s a mere 16 per cent). In cities where there was once a strong Tory presence, such as Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, conservatism has become very much a minority interest – there isn’t a single Tory Councillor in any of these cities and in most Council wards the party isn’t even in a challenging position.”
Some polling analysis for Policy Exchange, entitled Northern Lights stresses that rather than a simple north/south divide the problem for the Conservatives is specifically northern cities. The author of the report, Neil O’Brien, is now a Special Adviser to the Chancellor.
Cities Minister Greg Clark favours a spirit of localism – he wants cities to innovate rather than central Government imposing uniformity.
Unemployment has been falling and new businesses starting in the north as well as the south. The capture of the Labour Party by the Primrose Hill set offers an opportunity for the Conservatives. So a big bold offer to the North is welcome. Whether this is right one or not is rather more doubtful.